Australian Folk Songs

songs | books | records | articles | glossary | links | search | responses | home

Folk Music From The States (1946)

The increasing interest of young Americans in the folk music and folk songs of the United States that, been
one of the lesser known but significant outgrowths of the war. Today as never before young people are singing
and dancing to the tunes that have heretofore been of interest mainly to scholars, or to mountaineers, farmhands
cowboys, lumberjacks and migratory workers, heirs of a rich heritage of song and dance which has been handed
down by word of mouth for generations. This vital interest in folklore is part of a broader pattern of interest,
stimulated by the recent war.

It stems from the war itself, when millions of warworkers and service men moved across the country, intermingling
with their brothers of the mountains and valleys, the plateaus and plains, the hamlets, towns and cities of an
America until then unknown to their experience. This movement of people was accompanied by a healthy curiosity
about and a need for an understanding of the cultures with which they came in contact.

One of the typical scenes for these, exchanges was the troop train roaring across the country. Here servicemen
from all over the United States were thrown together for the first time. Here they played the usual card games,
talked the usual talk, read the usual magazines. And usually, from somewhere in the coach would come strains of
a strange and different music. The music of the "mountain grills," or the dust-bowl farmers, the lament of the
cowboy, or the ballads of the Scotch or English settlers of early America. Somewhere a quiet soldier had brought
forth a harmonica, or guitar, or banjo, and played the music his father and his father's father had played before
him. The tunes were catchy, and when the soldier sang, his words had a story to tell. Eager servicemen crowded
around and soon the card decks, the talk, the magazines were forgotten and the railway coach was rocking with song.

Servicemen did not forget these songs. They travelled with them throughout the war, and when they came home again,
they brought with them a knowledge of the customs, the superstitions, the stories and folkways of the people they
met in their travels. They returned also with an awakened interest, a desire to rediscover America. Broadened by
these contacts, their speech flecked with colloquialisms, these young people soon created a popular demand for
native American folklore.

Folk music did not spring into the national spotlight over night. It previously had been revived as a national
interest in the '30's when the Works Progress Administration (WPA) presented folklore exhibits and put out the
American Guide series, descriptive and informational volumes about the 48 states.

In addition, periodicals such as the California Folklore Quarterly, the Southern Folklore Quarterly, and the
American Folklore Journal were and still are avidly read by scholars and students. Every three years during
the summer months, the Folklore Institute of America convenes. Here folklorists exchange views and experiences,
adding rich background to the history of young America. The South-eastern Folklore Society, the Western folklore
conferences, and the national folk festivals have also contributed to a growing awareness in the people of the
folklore of the United States.

To-day's stimulated interest in United States folklore is not all scholar-Inspired. The Library of Congress,
having recognised the importance of folklore as a means of bringing to the people a picture of the total America,
has requested of Congress appropriations for the set ting up of an Archive of Folklore Section. John A. Lomax,
renowned collector of folk music, is bringing out another book this fall.

The greatest intensification of interest, however, has taken place outside the scholar's domain. The phonograph
record, the radio, and even the "juke box" (coin vending record player) have yielded to the growing demand for
the songs of Richard Dyer-Bennett; English and Scottish ballad singer; Woodie Guthrie, famous "dust-bowl" singer
and "hobo" ; Huddie Ledbetter, popularly known as "Leadbelly," Negro king of the 12-string guitar; the Negro
guitarist and ballad singer Josh White; guitarist and singer Burl Ives; John Jacob Niles, playing and singing
the sweet-sounding, dulcimer. Folk singers are heard today in sophisticated night clubs, concert halls, mass
meetings in big cities, and among rural audiences.

Hollywood too has caught the fever. Paramount plans a full length motion picture on the life of John Lomax.
Walt Disney, famed Hollywood cartoonist, is working on a number of shorts, covering the lives of Paul Bunyan,
legendary giant of the lumber camps; John Henry, legendary figure of the cotton fields; and the Martins and
McCoys, two legendary feuding mountain families.

"We in the United States," the late President Roosevelt once said, "are amazingly rich in the elements from
which to weave a culture. We have the best of man's past on which to draw, brought to us by our native folk
and folk from all parts of the world. In binding these elements into a national fabric of beauty and strength,
let us keep the original fibres so intact that the fineness of each will show in the completed handiwork."

The United States has been a storehouse of folk music for more than a century, and it is upon this rich past
that American youth is drawing to-day.


From the NSW newspaper The Northern Star 21 Sep 1946 p. 8.


australian traditional songs . . . a selection by mark gregory